Government criticised for limiting online privacy

Amid growing concerns over Internet security, critics charge the government is limiting use of encryption.

The government has deliberately hampered the take-up of encryption software to maintain police and intelligence access to communications, according to Nicholas Bohm, e-commerce adviser to civil liberties organisation Cyber Rights.

Bohm believes it has been government policy to limit the use of cryptography in the UK. The revelation comes amid mounting worries about security of email and government plans to monitor Net traffic. "It has been government policy, inspired by GCHQ, to discourage the use of cryptography," Bohm said. "The government is the main user of cryptographic software and is in a good position to discourage suppliers making it widespread."

Through the Customs and Excise office, the government has attempted to ensure only low-strength encryption software becomes available, according to Bohm. "The government has made it clear to organisations in the cryptography field that if they want export licences they will receive better treatment if they do not aggressively market strong encryption in the UK," he said.

But the government denies this. A DTI spokesman confirmed that encryption software is subject to export control: "If you ask whether it is our policy to allow strong encryption software to go to Iraq or Bosnia, the answer is no," he said. He denies the same policy holds true in the UK, although he admits both government and law enforcement agencies have "real concerns about the use of encryption".

None of the encryption software firms contacted by ZDNet News were prepared to give details of the dialogue they have with the government on this matter.